8 Things You Never Knew About Dragonflies

Dragonflies are beautiful, beneficial, ferocious, and fascinating.

dragonfly perched on stem of a plant
In form and name, the blue dasher dragonfly illustrates the beauty and flying prowess of these insects. Bonnie Taylor Barry/Shutterstock

Arriving on the scene around 300 million years ago, dragonflies were one of the first insects to inhabit this planet. They've had a long time to perfect the art of flying, hunting, and just being amazing. Here are a few facts that may change the way you look at these unique, ancient, and incredibly varied insects.

1. Dragonflies Can Intercept Prey Midair

A dragonfly feasts on a small insect.
A dragonfly feasts on a small insect. enciktat/Shutterstock

Dragonflies are flat-out terrifying if you're a gnat, mosquito, or other small bug. They don't simply chase down their prey. Instead, they snag them from the air with calculated aerial ambushes. Dragonflies can judge the speed and trajectory of a prey target and adjust their flight to intercept prey. They're so skilled they have up to a 95% success rate when hunting.

Basically, think "stealth fighter jet" when it comes to a dragonfly's ability to nab prey in flight quickly, effectively, and intelligently.

2. Dragonflies Have Incredibly Sharp Mandibles

Dragonflies are exceptional predators.
Dragonflies are exceptional predators. Cornel Constantin/Shutterstock

Their hunting strategy is impressive, but dragonflies' ability to rip apart prey takes their predatory prowess to another level.

Dragonflies and damselflies are in the order Odonata, meaning "toothed ones." The reason for the title is their serrated mandibles. When hunting, dragonflies catch prey with their feet, tear off the prey's wings with their sharp jaws so it can't escape, and scarf the sorry bug down, all without needing to land.

Thankfully, dragonflies can't bite humans. The vast majority of species don't have mandibles strong enough to break our skin. Only a small handful of large species are capable of actually biting, but this only occurs as a defensive strategy. So there's no need to worry when you're walking around a dragonfly sanctuary (more on these below).

3. Dragonflies Are Freaky Fliers

A dragonfly can move its four wings independently from each other.
A dragonfly can move each of its four wings independently from the others. Ra'id Khalil/Shutterstock

There are few species in the animal kingdom that can match the dragonfly for spectacular flying ability. Dragonflies have two sets of wings with muscles in the thorax that can work each wing independently. This allows them to change the angle of each wing and practice superior agility in the air.

Dragonflies can fly in any direction, including sideways and backward, and can hover in a single spot for a minute or more. This amazing ability is one factor in their success as aerial ambush predators — they can move in on unsuspecting prey from any direction.

Not only are they agile, but they're fast, with some species reaching a top speed of 18 miles per hour (29 kph). They're also known for their feats of endurance. One species called the globe skimmer, Pantala flavescens, flies across an ocean during migration, logging 11,000 miles (17,700 kilometers) and snagging the title of world's longest insect migration.

Between the speed, distance, and flexibility when hunting, dragonflies are one of the most exceptional fliers on the planet.

4. A Dragonfly's Head Is All Eyes

Dragonflies have huge compound eyes that allow 36-degree vision.
Dragonflies have huge compound eyes that allow near-360-degree vision. Jansen Chua/Shutterstock

If you look at a dragonfly's head, you might notice one thing in particular — or rather, 30,000 things in particular.

The area of an odonate's head is comprised primarily of its enormous compound eyes, which contain 30,000 facets, each bringing in information about the insect's surroundings. Dragonflies have nearly 360-degree vision, with just one blind spot directly behind them. This extraordinary vision is one reason why they're able to keep a watch on a single insect within a swarm and go after it while avoiding midair collisions with other insects in the swarm.

5. Dragonflies Live as Long as 2 Years Underwater

A dragonfly nymph is a ferocious underwater predator.
A dragonfly nymph is a ferocious underwater predator. Vitalii Hulai/Shutterstock

Dragonflies lay their eggs in water, and when the larvae hatch, they live underwater for up to two years. Actually, depending on the altitude and latitude, some species may stay in the larval state for up to six years. They'll molt up to 17 times as they grow and get ready to head to the surface and transform into the dragonflies we see in the air.

They are specially adapted for the aquatic life in this stage, with the ability to snag prey at lightning speed. They'll eat a huge variety of food, including other insect larvae, tadpoles, and even fish! And yes, they'll feast on other dragonfly larvae as well. These guys are predators to the max. You can learn more about the larvae stage in the video below.

6. Some Dragonfly Species Lay Eggs in Saltwater

Dragonflies can lay eggs in water that is even saltier than the ocean.
Dragonflies can lay eggs in water that is saltier than the ocean. J.Blanco/Shutterstock

Relatively few insects inhabit the ocean, perhaps because they have trouble surviving in saltwater. That doesn't seem to bother some dragonflies, however. Certain species, like the seaside dragonlet (Erythrodiplax berenicei) can even produce offspring in environments saltier than typical seawater.

Indeed, the seaside dragonlet is a stand-out species because its habitat consists of salt marshes, mangroves, and saline lakes. It's the only dragonfly species in North America (but not in the world) with a range that's restricted to salty habitats.

7. You Can Visit Dragonfly Sanctuaries Around the World

Dragonfly sanctuaries are both a beautiful place to visit, and a necessary refuge for these species.
Dragonfly sanctuaries are both a beautiful place to visit and a necessary refuge for these species. Grisha Bruev/Shutterstock

Dragonflies need protection from the dangers humans have created, from pollution to habitat loss. Thankfully, there are sanctuaries around the world.

The United Kingdom got its first dragonfly sanctuary, the Dragonfly Center, in 2009. Dragonfly enthusiasts also can visit a sanctuary in the southwestern United States. The Dragonfly Sanctuary Pond in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is the first sanctuary pond in the country and home to an amazing diversity of dragonfly and damselfly species. Across the Pacific, enthusiasts can enjoy these odonates in one of several wildlife sanctuaries in Japan created to protect dragonfly habitats and the diversity of the species.

8. Dragonflies Are Beneficial to People

The dragonfly does an amazing job of helping humans by controlling populations of pest insects, especially those that bug us most, such as mosquitoes and biting flies. A single dragonfly can reportedly eat anywhere from 30 to hundreds of mosquitoes per day. They also inspire us to create new technology — from drones to artificial visual systems — based on their incredible skills at flight and vision. The least we humans can do to return the favor is support the conservation of their habitats so they can continue on for another 300 million years.